When it comes to the game of fat loss, the one thing we can all agree upon is that there are many ways to skin a cat. For every person, there are theories that work, and theories that just don’t – and this is largely due to the fact that our bodies all respond to different things. The one thing we can say for sure for everyone is that in order to lose fat, you must be in some sort of deficit. What I think concerns me most when it comes to approaches to diet is this fear that many seem to have regarding certain macronutrients.
As an online coach for both competitors and non competitors alike, I get a chance to sit and talk with men and women about their fitness goals, and what they’re currently following nutrition wise. It always amazes me to hear how many people tend to think that following one diet plan over the other as being more effective, and so much so that many times they eliminate full food groups. The most popular diet trend that many seem to blindly follow are super low carbohydrate plans. It seems like in our society today, carbohydrates have become public enemy #1 when we’re talking about fat loss. To make things worse, carbs do not stand alone as the big bad villain to your adipose tissue.
Fats have been lumped into that category as well. Now don’t get me wrong, low carbohydrate plans can be very effective when it comes to fat loss, and often produce amazing results. But here’s something to think about… As carbs go down, conversely fats must go up. So if one is following a low carb plan, it would be a good idea to keep your fats higher so that you can have energy to get through your day, to train like a beast, and more importantly to meet your goals.
The same would go for higher carb, moderate protein diets; your fats would/should come down to make the deficit you’re trying to achieve calorically. But with all these facts in place, there’s something very basic to consider. I get asked very often, WHICH WAY IS THE BEST WAY to get to one’s goals? If I were to choose, what would I say is the most effective diet approach for fat loss. Well my answer is very simple, and as always, based on empirical data. So what exactly IS my answer… Scientific research has shown that it isn’t in fact WHAT you eat that accounts for overall fat loss, it still boils down to HOW MUCH you eat at the end of the day. Consider this 2009 study that explores the very topic:
Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
METHODS: We randomly assigned 811 overweight adults to one of four diets; the targeted percentages of energy derived from fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the four diets were 20, 15, and 65%; 20, 25, and 55%; 40, 15, and 45%; and 40, 25, and 35%. The diets consisted of similar foods and met guidelines for cardiovascular health. The participants were offered group and individual instructional sessions for 2 years. The primary outcome was the change in body weight after 2 years in two-by-two factorial comparisons of low fat versus high fat and average protein versus high protein and in the comparison of highest and lowest carbohydrate content.
RESULTS: At 6 months, participants assigned to each diet had lost an average of 6 kg, which represented 7% of their initial weight; they began to regain weight after 12 months. By 2 years, weight loss remained similar in those who were assigned to a diet with 15% protein and those assigned to a diet with 25% protein (3.0 and 3.6 kg, respectively); in those assigned to a diet with 20% fat and those assigned to a diet with 40% fat (3.3 kg for both groups); and in those assigned to a diet with 65% carbohydrates and those assigned to a diet with 35% carbohydrates (2.9 and 3.4 kg, respectively) (P>0.20 for all comparisons).
Among the 80% of participants who completed the trial, the average weight loss was 4 kg; 14 to 15% of the participants had a reduction of at least 10% of their initial body weight. Satiety, hunger, satisfaction with the diet, and attendance at group sessions were similar for all diets; attendance was strongly associated with weight loss (0.2 kg per session attended). The diets improved lipid-related risk factors and fasting insulin levels.
CONCLUSIONS: Reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.
So in a nutshell, according to this study, you can get your calories from whatever macronutrient mix that you wish, the obvious most effective way to ensure change is to ensure you are indeed in a deficit. Now the advice that I do like to give people that ask me the fabled question of what’s best is to: a.) Find what macronutrient amount works best for you and your goals. The more you train, and the harder you train, the more carbohydrates must come into the equation.
If you choose to follow a lower carb plan, then being sure to include a few high carb or full refeed days is a very smart move. b.) You may create a deficit in many ways. Once you find your maintenance calories, you can deduct a good 15-20% from that total to give you a good starting point for your fat loss plan. But there are other ways to incorporate a deficit as well. One thing I like to say to clients is that it should be your goal to EAT for change, EAT for fat loss, and EAT to perform your best in and out of the gym.
With this kind of mindset, you want to try to keep as much food in as you can as you take fat down, and allow the rest of your caloric deficit to come from training. As an example, let’s say you want to create a 500 calorie per day deficit in your total plan. You can either take that deficit all from food, or you can simply take 250 calories per day from your diet, and allow the other 250 calories to come from training. Both are valid, remember, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
c.) And finally, never ever look at ANY macronutrient as an enemy. Realize that food is your greatest ALLY – not the worst enemy. Food is fuel, and each macro plays a crucial role in your overall physical health. At times it will definitely benefit you to reduce the consumption of one over the other, but make the choice based upon what YOUR body needs, and not simply what someone tells you is “right”. And never go for the quickest result – after all, when it comes off quickly, it will come back on even faster. The game of fat loss is about thinking intelligently, and listening to your body. Keeping those two things in mind, you should be able to conquer your goals no matter how great or small.